Monday, March 6, 2017

Wounded Souls at the Edge of a Rain Forest: The Night of the Iguana at ART

Amanda Plummer, Dana Delany and Bill Heck (centre) in The Night of the Iguana at the American Repertory Theatre.
(Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

Amanda Plummer gives a wondrous performance as Hannah Jelkes in Michael Wilson’s new production of The Night of the Iguana at American Repertory Theatre. In Tennessee Williams’ 1961 play, set in a hotel at the edge of a Mexican rain forest in 1940, the protagonist, T. Lawrence Shannon – a southerner and one-time Episcopalian minister, now a tour guide for an American company – describes Hannah as a “thin-standing-up-Buddha.” In fact, she’s a Nantucket spinster who travels with her nearly-centenarian grandfather, a poet. He recites and she paints portraits; that’s how they live, traveling from hotel to hotel, though when they appear at the Costa Verde, run by Maxine Faulk, the recent widow of Shannon’s old friend and fishing buddy Fred, they’re distinctly on their uppers. Hannah possesses the sort of philosophical endurance that is indistinguishable from grace, though, she assures Shannon, who has worked himself up to a fine state of hysteria – he’s slept with a teenage girl on this latest tour, of Texan Baptists, and its supervisor, Miss Fellowes, is determined to get him fired – her serenity has come at a steep price. He is trailed by his “spook”; she fought a tense battle with her “blue devil,” defeating him at last because, she explains, she couldn’t afford to lose. Shannon finds an unexpected companion in Hannah, who is almost supernal in her perceptions and utterly non-judgmental of other people. (“Nothing human disgusts me,” she asserts.)

Plummer has been one of my favorite actresses since Lamont Johnson’s lovely, too-little-known 1981 western Cattle Annie and Little Britches, where, at twenty-four, she and sixteen-year-old Diane Lane played a pair of orphans who join Burt Lancaster’s gang of outlaws. Around the same time she took up the role of Jo in a rare New York stage revival of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, and in both projects she demonstrated a poetic ferocity and gallantry that weren’t quite like anything I’d seen before. (God knows she came by her talent honestly – she’s the daughter of Christopher Plummer and Tammy Grimes.) Those qualities ought to be a perfect match for Tennessee Williams’ heroines, but the first time I saw her attempt one, Alma in Summer and Smoke at Hartford Stage in 2006 (under Wilson’s direction), oddly enough she couldn’t seem to get her mouth around the poetry – at least not until the epilogue, where Alma, once the eccentric of her small southern town, has become its scandal, picking up salesmen in the square. Plummer had been off track since the opening scene, but in that last five minutes she was exquisite; I couldn’t help thinking it a pity that she couldn’t start her performance all over again. But she did some fantastic work opposite Brad Dourif in Williams’ The Two-Character Play four years ago, and her line readings in this Night of the Iguana are quicksilver and often very funny and always, always unpredictable. And she’s radiant – a kind of earth angel with a sometimes unsettlingly level gaze.

Dana Delany in The Night of the Iguana at the American Repertory Theatre (Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

The play is about the meeting of people who, for disparate reasons, have reached the end of their tether. Shannon (played here by Bill Heck) melodramatizes his breakdown with almost voluptuous indulgence, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t a breakdown. Maxine (Dana Delany) is a tough, pragmatic sensualist – she’s been sleeping with her Mexican houseboys, just as she did, by mutual consent, when her husband was alive – but Fred’s death has unmoored her in ways she won’t admit. Nonno (James Earl Jones), as Hannah calls her grandfather, is struggling to complete a poem – his first in many years, and he knows it will be his last. And Hannah, weary after patient years of her nomadic life, is longing for respite. Their shared time at the Costa Verde, which includes a spectacular rainstorm – and the presence of some Nazis on vacation, whose gleeful celebration of Hitler’s bombing of London is meant to provide a historical counterpoint for the verge-of-the-apocalypse nature imagery – allows them to show their vulnerabilities and make human connections that Hannah describes as “broken gates between people.” (The Nazis are the single touch that Williams can’t make work, and I always feel sorry for the poor actors who have to play them.)

You won’t find the “broken gates between people” reference in Wilson’s production; I guess he doesn’t agree with me that it’s the closest the play come to a statement of the theme. I missed other beautiful lines, too, that didn’t make the cut when he trimmed it from nearly two and three-quarter hours to two hours and twenty minutes, though for some reason it’s acquired a few “fucks” that aren’t in the original text. (The most jarring one is Maxine’s reference to “the motherfucking check,” which also struck me as anachronistic, at least in this particular setting.) The Night of the Iguana is such a marvel of a play – one of Williams’ two or three best, in my estimation – that I wish he hadn’t played with the text.

Wilson directed the play at Hartford Stage in 2003, during his tenure as artistic director there, and though it didn’t have the celebrity appeal of this one – which also features Elizabeth Ashley as Miss Fellowes – I liked it better. This version has resplendent designs by Derek McLane (sets), David Lander (lighting) and Catherine Zuber (costumes), and Jones modulates his extraordinary magnetism with delicate humor and lyricism appropriate to the role. (His reading of the poem, which Nonno completes just before the final curtain, does it full justice.) But except for him and Plummer, the cast is disappointing. Heck has the right physical qualities for the part of the handsome but broken-down Shannon but though he works very hard, he just doesn’t have the resources for it. (The best Shannon I’ve ever seen, hands down, was William Petersen, from TV’s CSI, in a magnificent – I’d call it revelatory – production that began at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1994 and transferred to the Roundabout in New York, with Cherry Jones as Hannah and Marsha Mason as Maxine.) But at least he’s in the ballpark. Delany gives a superficial reading of Maxine; you get everything she’s got in the first five minutes. And Ashley is, typically, campy and cartoonish; she goes for every cheap laugh. I assume ART’s idea is to move the show to Broadway. The performances of Plummer and Jones deserve some longevity, but the rest of the principals just aren’t good enough.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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